21 mistakes by public health officials and ordinary people that helped spread the coronavirus around the world

Ivan Romano/Getty ImagesTrain passengers are given a sanitary check in Salerno, Southern Italy, on Sunday, after the government announced the closure of Lombardy and 14 other provinces.
  • Since the coronavirus first emerged from Wuhan, China, in December 2019, it has spread to more than 100 countries and infected thousands of people.
  • People around the world have been quarantined, or told to practice “social distancing,” to contain the virus.
  • However, several times and in several countries the official containment measures have been breached – whether through complacency, miscommunication, or incompetence.
  • Given the rapid spread of the virus, it is hard to know which mistakes are inconsequential, and which could lead to many more infections.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

The novel coronavirus has spread rapidly outside of China since its first known case in December 2019, ravaging markets and establishing itself as a global threat.

At time of writing, more than 182,000 people have been infected in at least 100 countries and more than 7,000 people have died from the illness. The World Health Organisation officially declared it a pandemic. (For the latest numbers, see Business Insider’s live updates here.)

Various companies, governments, and health authorities have put into place sweeping measures to stop the virus spreading, like bans on travel, quarantines, or cancelling events.

But such measures rely on strictly following protocols. Whether through complacency, miscommunication, or incompetence, that has not always happened.

Here is a list of all the times something slipped through the net.

A disclaimer: Much is still unknown about the virus and exactly how it spreads. A single breach could lead to millions of extra infections, or zero. Many scientists think containment – even if perfectly executed – is ultimately futile.

Health experts and governments around the world have warned citizens to practice social distancing, but many of them still went against this advice.

Gonzalo Fuentes / ReutersPeople enjoy a sunny Sunday on the Seine river banks on Sunday.

People in France ignored the government’s advice to practice social distancing, and were photographed socialising outside cafes and enjoying the outdoor weather in large groups over the weekend.

Shortly afterward, the French government required people to produce a form justifying why they needed to be outside, and imposed a fine of up to 135 euros ($US150) for anyone who goes out without their permission document.

Source: Business Insider

Even though many cities including New York, Boston, and New Orleans cancelled or postponed their St. Patrick’s Day celebrations, impromptu gatherings were still held over the March 14 to 15 weekend.

Scott Threlkeld: The Advocate via APRevelers celebrate St. Patrick’s Day during an unofficial gathering at Tracey’s Original Irish Channel Bar in New Orleans on March 14, 2020,

Source: Business Insider

In northern Italy, plans by the government to quarantine 16 million people on March 8 were leaked early by a national newspaper — causing thousands of people to “flee” the region before the measures took place.

Ivan Romano/Getty ImagesTrain passengers are given a sanitary check-in Salerno, Southern Italy, on March 8, 2020.

“What happened with the news leak has caused many people to try to escape, causing the opposite effect of what the decree is trying to achieve,” Roberto Burioni, a professor of microbiology and virology at Milan’s Vita-Salute San Raffaele University, told The Guardian.

“Unfortunately, some of those who fled will be infected with the disease.”

Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte also condemned the leak, calling it “unacceptable,” the newspaper reported.

Source: Business Insider

Five days earlier, a Korean contractor lied about his health and kept going to work at Camp Walker, a US military base in South Korea. He later tested positive for coronavirus.

REUTERS/Kim Kyung-HoonSouth Korean soldiers wearing protective gear walk on a street in front of Daegu’s city hall after the rapid rise in confirmed coronavirus cases on March 2, 2020.

A total of nine coronavirus cases have been linked since February 24 to US Forces in Korea, according to Business Insider.

A commander at US Army Garrison Daegu, Edward Ballanco, said the contractor was “sick one week ago and kept coming on post” and that he did not answer any of the health questions “truthfully.”

Calling the man’s actions “reprehensible,” the commander said, “he will never be coming on post again.”

Source: Business Insider

Similarly, the father and sister of a Missouri woman, who had returned from Italy on March 2 and felt sick, attended a school dance together. The woman is the state’s first presumptive positive COVID-19 case.

Associated Press/Elaine ThompsonA pair of workers at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport in March 3, 2020.

The family had been told repeatedly to self-quarantine.

“We relied on common sense and goodwill toward the community to self-quarantine,” the St. Louis County Executive, Sam Page, said in a March 8 press conference.

“The way the family has reacted to this situation is really a tale of two reactions … A study of how people should and should not react to the coronavirus.”

A few days before that, on February 28, a hospital worker in New Hampshire was told to self-isolate at home but went to an event at Dartmouth College’s business school instead.

Getty ImagesPeople wear face masks during the morning commute in New York on March 3, 2020.

The patient is an employee at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Centre, according to NBC Boston.

On March 3, health officials announced that there was a second recorded coronavirus case in the state.

All others who attended the event are now being told to stay isolated, NBC Boston reported.

But hospitals have also been making crucial mistakes. A Texas patient who was released from quarantine after meeting “all of the CDC’s criteria for release” ended up testing positive for the virus.

Getty ImagesTravellers wear face masks at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) in Los Angeles on March 2, 2020.

The Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) admitted their mistake, which happened several days earlier, in a March 1 statement.

They said: “The discharged patient had some contact with others while out of isolation, and CDC and local public health partners are following up to trace possible exposures and notify them of their potential risk.”

The CDC also said it was looking into recent similar incidents where test results have alternated back forth.

Source: Business Insider

In a hospital in Italy’s Lombardy — the worst-affected region in the country — the suspected first patient was allowed to roam around its premises for 36 hours before being admitted on February 19.

Yara Nardi / ReutersMembers of the Italian army wearing protective face masks at the perimeter of the quarantined town of Turano Lodigiano, on February 26, 2020.

According to a report by Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, the 38-year-old man was admitted to the emergency room in Codogno on February 19 with respiratory problems.

During the 36-hour period in which he was waiting to be seen, the patient made contact with hospital staff and visiting friends and family.

Italy’s prime minister, Giuseppe Conte, appeared to admit the fault of the Lombardy hospital.

He told reporters: “There has been a management of the hospital not entirely proper according to prudent protocols, which are recommended in these cases, and this has certainly contributed to the spread.”

Italy is now the epicentre of the outbreak, and is in complete lockdown.

Source: Business Insider

Meanwhile, in South Korea, a doomsday church went ahead with a mass wedding ceremony on February 20 despite rising numbers of cases.

Chung Sung-Jun/Getty ImagesWorkers in protective gear spray an anti-septic solution to fight the coronavirus in a subway station in Seoul, South Korea, on February 21, 2020.

At the event, 6,000 members of the doomsday Shincheonji Church of Jesus were asked to “remove face masks while attending prayer sessions.”

South Korea experienced a massive boom in cases in February, with many cases linked to the church.

Source: Business Insider

By then, it was already obvious that the virus was also a big problem in South Korea.

ReutersA mass wedding ceremony of the Unification Church in Gapyeong on February 20, 2020.

Health officials on the day of the mass wedding announced that the number of cases in the country had risen to 104.

Church leaders went ahead, despite the cancellation of other festivals, concerts, and graduation ceremonies in South Korea.

Back in the US, other hospital mishaps started occurring. In California, a hospital for several days ignored a patient who later turned out to be the first “community spread” case in the nation because she didn’t meet its criteria to be tested.

Noah Berger/APNorthBay VacaValley Hospital, where a woman diagnosed with the coronavirus previously sought treatment.

Staff members at NorthBay VacaValley Hospital in northern California didn’t test the woman because she had not recently travelled to or from China, or had contact with any other confirmed cases, according to The Washington Post.

Four days later, after her symptoms got worse, they admitted her on February 15.

The hospital since said it was “meticulously tracing” anyone who came into contact with the woman in case they got sick too.

It also emerged that some coronavirus test kits didn’t work at all. Health officials in Hawaii announced that the CDC had sent them flawed equipment.

CDC/Associated PressThe CDC’s laboratory test kit for the new coronavirus. This picture is not related to the story about the faulty tests.

Outside of Hawaii, the CDC admitted on February 12 that some coronavirus test kits sent to laboratories around the country did not work properly, according to the New York Times.

It is unclear how many of these tests were faulty, leading to heightened concerns about the effectiveness of using the tests to track the spread of disease, Business Insider’s Rosie Perper reported.

This also happened in San Diego, when a woman under quarantine was released by accident despite showing symptoms of the virus. The initial test results found she had not been infected.

Getty ImagesA traveller wearing a medical mask at Los Angeles International Airport. She is not the woman who was quarantined in San Diego.

The patient was released from the UC San Diego Health centre after initial test results found they had not to been infected,Business Insider reported on February 11.

But when the patient started showing symptoms and tested positive, they were sent back for observation and isolation.

In an email statement, published by the San Diego Union-Tribune, the university said that even though the infected evacuee was accidentally released, all proper protocols were followed.

“The patient left UC San Diego Health the same way they arrived, with all precautions taken,” it said.

This appears to have been a wider problem, with the CDC later admitting that it lost valuable weeks after attempting to devise its own test.

ReutersA general view of CDC headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia.

A ProPublica investigation found that the CDC shunned official World Health Organisation test guidelines by trying to create a more complicated test of its own which could also identify similar viruses.

It didn’t work as expected.

The lack of reliable tests prevented local officials from taking crucial first step in coping with a possible outbreak, ProPublica reported.

Around the same time, a patient in London broke protocol by turning up the hospital in an Uber on February 13. Two staff members she came in contact with were asked to stay home for 14 days.

ReutersUniversity Hospital Lewisham in London, where a coronavirus patient arrived in an Uber on February 13.

While it is unlikely that the Uber driver caught the virus, the woman went against official advice by not calling an ambulance or using a private vehicle to get to the hospital.

The UK had already been struggling with a surge in cases after four British passengers on the Diamond Princess cruise ship in Japan were cleared to fly home even though their tests were still at the lab. They all had the virus.

Getty ImagesEvacuees from the Diamond Princess are driven from Boscombe Down airfield in rural England.

The other British evacuees who arrived with the infected passengers expressed their anger that those who tested positive were allowed to fly.

In a WhatsApp message seen by Sky News, one wrote: “They let them fly without the results, so they have put us in a position where we now could have it too.”

For more than a week, the worst coronavirus hotspot outside China was a single cruise ship, the Diamond Princess. The entire ship was quarantined, and more and more people on board started to get sick.

Carl Court/Getty ImagesA member of the media walks past the Diamond Princess cruise ship at Daikoku Pier in Yokohama, Japan, on February 2, 2020.

From the beginning of the quarantine, passengers reported a lack of information on the ship as well as concerns that their temperature screenings were not done properly, Business Insider’s Morgan McFall-Johnsen reported.

Crew members were finally allowed to leave the coronavirus-stricken ship on February 27 after weeks onboard.

The ship ended up recording close to 700 infections and seven deaths from the coronavirus.

Eventually, authorities let people get off the ship. However, at least 23 of them had never been properly tested for the virus — prompting an embarrassing apology from Japan.

ReutersA bus carrying Diamond Princess passengers leaves the terminal in Yokohama, where the ship was docked.

Japanese health minister Katsunobu Kato apologised after a woman in her 60s tested negative, was allowed to leave, and later turned out to have had the virus.

She had already returned to her home in a suburb outside Tokyo, Japan, according to The Guardian.

The newspaper reported that Kato said that the ministry was trying to reach other passengers for retesting.

“We deeply apologise for the situation caused by our oversight. We will take all necessary measures, like double checks, to prevent a recurrence,” he said.

An official at Japan’s ministry of health later admitted problems with the idea. An independent expert said it was “flawed” and the problems were “completely predictable.”

GettyPassengers on board the Diamond Princess on February 18, 2020, while it was docked at Yokohama, Japan.

At a press conference on February 24, Yosuke Kita, a senior coordinator at Japan’s Ministry of Health, said: “I admit, our isolation policy was not perfect. No place is perfect except in a hospital.”

“The whole idea of the cruise ship quarantine was ill-conceived, and the resultant slew of infections it spawned was completely predictable,” Dr. Amesh Adalja with the Johns Hopkins Centre for Health Security previously told Business Insider.

Source: Business Insider

There were problems when as the first US evacuees from Wuhan were flown home as well. Healthcare workers who met them on January 29 reportedly did so without appropriate protective gear or proper training.

Getty ImagesHealth workers meet evacuees from Wuhan, China, at March Air Reserve Base in Riverside, California on January 29, 2020.

The claim came from a whistleblower at the Department of Health and Human Services and was not made public until almost a month later, in an article by The Washington Post.

Over in the UK, a maths teacher who lived in Wuhan but flew home on January 26 said he wasn’t tested and that officials told him not to worry unless “he got the sniffles.”

ReutersWomen walk past a sign warning of the coronavirus in the UK.

David Marland lived just five minutes from a live animal and seafood market in Wuhan which was ground zero for transmission of the virus.

He told Britain’s Daily Telegraph newspaper that he was concerned about the official advice he was given.

One of the most visible errors was a massive potluck banquet for more than 10,000 families in Wuhan on January 18, where guests brought food from home and shared it with each other.

Getty ImagesA man cross an empty highway road on February 3, 2020 in Wuhan.

It was by then clear that an outbreak was underway: three days later the entire city would be quarantined.

“Having a big event like this at a time of an epidemic amounts to a lack of basic common sense,” said Li Xinzhou, a respiratory specialist in Shanghai, told The Wall Street Journal.

Complacency was also a problem in the outbreak’s early stages. Officials in Wuhan were slow to realise the severity of the outbreak, which came ahead of a travel rush at Lunar New Year. By the time the city was sealed off, many cases had been recorded elsewhere in China.

Feature China/Barcroft Media via Getty ImagesA doctor treats a coronavirus patient in Wuhan on February 25, 2020.

As it became clear how serious the outbreak was, China’s central government fired officials in Wuhan and took the unusual step of publicly admitting its mistake.

The admission came from the Politburo Standing Committee, the most powerful body of the Chinese Communist Party.

In an official record of the meeting, published by the state-run Xinhua news agency, the committee said that the epidemic had exposed problems in its emergency management, which it promised to improve.

Source: Business Insider

During this period, Chinese officials also actively discouraged “rumours” of a new virus, and punished a doctor who tried to spread word of it.

AP PhotoLi Wenliang, the doctor who sounded and early warning about the coronavirus and was punished.

The outbreak began in December 2019, and at first, scientists did not realise what a disaster the new disease would be.

Source: Business Insider

The doctor, Li Wenliang, later died fighting the outbreak in Wuhan.

Associated PressA vigil for Li Wenliang, in Hong Kong, Friday, Feb. 7, 2020.

Chinese social media was filled with outpourings of grief and anger after Li’s death, with many posts featuring the hashtag “We want freedom of speech.”

Source: Business Insider

Business Insider Emails & Alerts

Site highlights each day to your inbox.

Follow Business Insider Australia on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram.